A GRAND OLD DAME
Gourmet Traveller|August 2020
Never mind the new kids on the block, ANNA HART raises a glass to hotels with history and the timeless allure of a grande dame hotel.
ANNA HART

It is only human to be dazzled by the new, drawn to shiny hotels and captivated by slick concept restaurants. We are on a lifelong quest for the surprising and the novel, mainly because it gives us something to talk about. As epicurean adventurers, we’ll brave waiting lists and queues in order to sidle up to a much-hyped hotel or newly-opened restaurant, basking in the glow of this young hospitality starlet, enjoying what might turn out to be just 15 minutes of fame.

Our collective fetishisation of newness means we should be even more in awe of the historic grande dame hotel who has quietly charmed travellers for decades. The tough old bird who has weathered the storms history hurled her way – wars, recessions, pandemics – with dignity and grace. Who has an endless stream of scintillating stories and star-studded anecdotes, but knows when to lean back demurely and provide a decorative backdrop. And the ultimate marker of a classy hotel: the knack of putting anyone in the room at ease.

Like Claridge’s, in London, which welcomed my two male companions and I into our suite without batting an eyelid. “We’re just friends!” I insisted, but Claridge’s was too classy to care. I’ll admit I was worried they might find my request – a sleepover with my two best friends – unusual, but here’s the thing about a central London hotel that dates back to 1812: They’ve seen it all.

Claridge’s is the decadent Mayfair address where Joan Collins threw a wedding party, Kate Moss celebrated her 30th birthday, Mick Jagger racked up a $1.5 million bill and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bunked up shortly after Pitt’s split from Jennifer Aniston. A platonic threesome in the Empress Eugenie Suite was nothing.

A bottle of champagne greeted us – just one of the 36,000 bottles of champagne consumed by Claridge’s guests every year – along with three champagne flutes in a row. (Throughout our short stay, Robbie and Ryan were both addressed as “Mr Hart”, to my great delight.) I’d considered booking theatre tickets, but when you’re in a historic hotel like this, it seems a shame to miss a moment. After all, we were already in one of the best places in London. Why go out in search of somewhere second-best? A grande dame hotel offers sweet respite from this sort of exhausting traveller’s guilt. So we clattered down the sweeping staircase into the glittering Art Deco lobby, before sinking into the soft leather seating in The Fumoir, a sexy, shadowy 1930s jewellery box of a cocktail bar, with original Lalique crystal panels, aubergine walls and a marble horseshoe bar top.

Much of the hotel’s character is owed to a spectacular Art Deco makeover in the early 1930s overseen by Oswald Milne, who transformed the lobby from a slightly old-fashioned carriage driveway into a gleaming centrepiece with mirrors, a revolving door and decadent lighting. Nearly a century later, Claridge’s is considered an Art Deco gem in the heart of Mayfair, the London hotel of choice for good old-fashioned glamour without a hint of fusty formality or fuss.

So what was the big occasion? My departure to Los Angeles for several months on a writing assignment. Getting rid of me is something worth celebrating in style, and I’d decided to treat my two best buds to a fairly spectacular final hurrah. It was just a regular Wednesday night, and we all had work in the morning, but Claridge’s has the magical ability to turn even the drabbest of winter Wednesdays into a glittering Saturday. I can see how the endless Saturdays at Claridge’s could prove addictive, and entertainers who used the hotel as their regular London address throughout the 1950s include Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn and Bing Crosby. Why go to another hotel and have to live through Mondays and Tuesdays, when it’s always Saturday at Claridge’s?

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